Pourquoi

La Petite Poire © Samantha Groenestyn

‘Craft needs objectives,’ argues Frank Chimero (p. 17) in his new / pending book The Shape of Design.* A significant and indispensable part of the craftsman’s work is his apprenticeship—the learning of his craft, and the ongoing refining of it, as Richard Sennett describes in loving detail in his book, The Craftsman.** While sifting through my sorts (individual metal letters for printing) at the letterpress class I recently had the pleasure of attending, I was informed that the first four years of a letterpress printer’s apprenticeship was sorting the sorts into their cases–minding their p’s and q’s–and indeed I spent some time pondering over the subtle differences of n’s and u’s when tossed into the wrong allotment. By the end of this gruelling period, the fledgling printer would be expert at reaching for and setting characters without looking, making him a capable and efficient typesetter.

Chimero acknowledges that perfecting one’s craft is important and—as Sennett emphasises—rewarding, but argues that focusing on this one face of craft is myopic. There is a second side to craft, which he illustrates by situating Rembrandt as the flipside of Vermeer (pp. 12-13). Vermeer brings us into the artist’s studio to see him adeptly putting paint to canvas, but Rembrandt depicts the analytical face of the artist, scrutinising his efforts from a distance, simultaneously a critical and a strategic gaze.

Chimero (p. 13) equates How with this nearness to one’s work, also understood as the making and execution of that work, or, more broadly, as craft. How is no simple question, and covers all the problem-solving, lateral thinking and sweating over details and failures explored by Sennett. But Why encourages us to put our work into perspective, to think about it, strategise about it, to approach it analytically. It is this added engagement that nurtures originality. Chimero (p. 13) paints this rather vividly as ‘an individual in dialogue with themselves and the work.’

Having approached my first few months as an illustrator with the explicit intention of improving my craft, learning new techniques and exploring my style, I find myself with a pictorially lovely collection of work that finds itself a sort of baby sister to Fine Art. These works are in no way wasted, and are necessary steps along the path to Becoming Awesome, but their purpose is as simple as: ‘learning exercise that hopefully ends in aesthetically pleasing object.’

‘Questions about How to do things improves craft and elevates form, but asking Why unearths a purpose and develops a point of view,’ Chimero (p. 12) writes. Creating beautiful things is pleasing, but engaging our minds is even more rewarding. Revealing our analytical choices and processes gives a depth to our work that Chimero (p. 15) calls ‘a new form of beauty,’ one that engages dialogue beyond the craftsman and her work, engaging the viewer in that conversation as well.

* Chimero, Frank. 2012. The Shape of Design.
** Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. Penguin: London.
↬ Maria Popova, Frank Chimero’s studiomate, wrote about this book on her fabulous website Brainpickings.

 

Having begun to think of ways in which I might apply my illustrative abilities, I dreamed up a French restaurant and fashioned a hand-lettered menu for it. The mouthwatering recipes are titles carefully selected from a recent second-hand find, Good French Cooking (1966) by the Comtesse Guy de Toulouse-Lautrec. In my days at my coffee shop, I am unendingly maddened by the stupid orders of my patrons, who want everything from decaf soy cappuccinos without the chocolate dusting, to mega-babycinos. I like to imagine that my own café would serve simply ‘Coffee,’ an espresso, and if you don’t like it you can do unspeakable things to yourself with hot substances or you can go and humiliate yourself elsewhere. A simple menu with limited choices is best, and if devised by a culinarily talented individual it ought to succeed without bending to the whims of trends or demands.

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The factory

Death is dead © Samantha Groenestyn

The past few days have passed in somewhat of a printing frenzy. After a giddy, hands-on letterpress class, I went on a class excursion to ‘a printer’s.’ My graphic design teacher had been raving about this excursion since some time last year, and having read the basics of offset lithography, my classmates and I were somewhat skeptical of the outing, though interested in printing.

We rolled up to one Intech Printing at 6pm, expecting the place to be deserted but for Gary, our friendly neighbourhood printer. Instead we found ourselves gawping in the car park of a white box of significant proportions, and were permitted into a very much alive and bustling factory. We were led from room to room scattered with stacks of paper on pallets, pallet-inverting machines, offset printers, die cutters, folding machines, stitching machines, colour-testing machines, quality control check points, ink pots, tools, rolls of paper, web-fed presses, pallet-stacking robots and coke cans.

Yes, we have engineered fascinatingly complex machinery to put ink onto paper, and have come a long way from the nib of the scribe. But my printer experience was somewhat darkened by the realisation that this remarkable feat of humanity, one that opened the way for literacy, spread music to the masses and led to all-around enlightenment, requires people to be to hand at all hours of the night to act as machine-minders and to perform repetitive tasks of the reparative and not the creative variety.

Ah, German humour. (We were at this point wearing ear plugs).

While I had entered a workshop and worked under the direction of an experienced letterpress printer with a keen eye for detail and a passion for accuracy and precision, and therefore spent a day absorbing both technique and history, the ‘real’ printers, the ones who print the physical printed objects that come into our hands daily and who make a living from the trade rather than an expensive hobby, quite simply looked bored. And any decent human being couldn’t look at the ‘Daddy’ mug next to the ink monitoring controls without thinking that people ought to be able to go home for the night and rest, and partake in normal social interactions.

Is there pride in such work as is produced in a factory? Richard Sennett* writes that ‘pride in one’s work lies at the heart of craftsmanship as the reward for skill and commitment. … Craftsmen take pride most in skills that mature. This is why simple imitation is not a sustaining satisfaction; the skill has to evolve. The slowness of craft time also enables the work of reflection and imagination—which the push for quick results cannot’ (p. 294-5).

The very speed of our society pushes this kind of pride in workmanship out of the picture. Humanity finds itself a crutch to the machinery that can largely perform the entire process alone—it is only when paper is jammed and blankets need replacing that people have their time to shine. I watched a very grim-faced Tony expertly and intently repairing the Heidelberg Speedmaster and thought, now I have seen the real craftsmanship of the printer. We had come to witness the Speedmaster in action, in all it’s blue neon, CMYK radiance, and were disappointed when it stalled. But it was only when it failed that we saw Tony rise from a monitor to a problem-solving lateral-thinker, adept with his tools.

Heidelberg Speedmaster

The printing industry is what it is, and must meet our demands or collapse, and there is certainly room for a level of ingenuity and pride in one’s trade as a competent repairer, colour-matcher or mechanic. Every job will require some level of repetition, and this repetition underpins facility with tasks that allows for pride in one’s competence. But removing the control and ownership of the process, and making it into a round-the-clock production has made it a hollow shell. There is certainly more to be said on the topic of slowing down and giving tasks their due attention. Sennett notes that craftsmen did not stand up to the machine, but nor did they themselves develop them according to the needs of the workshop: they ‘did not sponsor research or themselves design machines that would keep a large body of skilled operatives necessary. Mechanical change came to the labour force rather than from within the labour movement’ (p. 107-8). It is because of the craftsman’s disinterest in machines that he became dominated by them—‘Technological advance comes in this way to seem inseparable from domination by others’ (p. 108).

Without resorting to some sort of pre-industrial romanticism, I wish to simply say that we ought to be on our guard, taking ownership of our work, using machines but not being driven by them. Scribes have noted their miseries in the margins of their manuscripts and essentially inhabited slow factories, but factories nonetheless. We need to find the line at which we are personally comfortable operating, and think about what we are asking of humanity when we demand express printing, or express production in any sector.

* Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. Penguin: London.

One day I was going for a walk and I saw a dead crow. It was like the Cold War Kids song, where he is thinking about his childhood road trips and how he ‘drew a picture of a cat laying dead in the street,’ and how he ‘finally figured out what the cat in the street meant.’ Dead crow–so meta. Mind blown.

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Dude craft

‘Your dead child. Prepare him for new life. Fill him with the earth. Be careful! He should not over-eat. Put on his golden coat. You bathe him. Warm him but be careful! A child dies from too much sun. Put on his jewels. This is my recipe.’ (Madame Benshaw)

Yesterday, these shoes were scuffed old brown shoes, loved day after day, trekked through all terrains.

Today, these trusty shoes were reanimated.

Tomorrow, these shoes will walk again.

I think this little weekend craft, book-ended by Photoshop tutorials and sunset bike-rides, qualifies as a ‘dude craft‘ even though I am more of a lady-dude. It involved boot polish!

The poulet à la d’Albufera recipe above is from none other than Richard Sennett’s cooking teacher, a Persian woman who wrote in metaphor. But that’s a dude craft for another time.

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Rhythm

Arthur's Seat and blossoms © Samantha Groenestyn

‘Built into the contractions of the human heart, the skilled craftsman has extended rhythm to the hand and the eye,’ is how Richard Sennett* summarises routine. Rather than equating routine with boredom and mindless repetition, Sennett argues that ‘doing something over and over is stimulating when organised as looking ahead’ (p. 175). While thinking ahead to a finished product or a gained skill is motivating, the repetition comes to be performed for its own sake, a kind of cathartic release.

This is certainly something experienced by knitters, who, while they anticipate the finished garment, tirelessly knit stitch after stitch and take pleasure in it. People who do not make things always frustrate me with the same question: upon seeing a finished piece of any variety, they gasp and ask, ‘How many hours did that take you?’ Perhaps I could even answer the question if it was in the form of ‘how long’—perhaps a month or two, but only in the evenings, and I’m out several evenings a week—but something so specific as hours? This obsession with the commitment required to produce a final object starts from a false place that misses the point of crafts. If one knits, or sews, or paints, or writes, one knows that although possessing the consummation of one’s labour will be terribly rewarding, for now all that matters is the doing. A creative person is so caught up in ‘being as a thing’ (p. 174) and so consumed in the process, that she could hardly want it to end, and, indeed, immediately follows with another project so as not to have time elapse without the desired activity.

‘Sheer movement repeated becomes a pleasure in itself’ (p. 175).

* Sennett, Richard. 2009. The Craftsman. Penguin: London.

** A treat from an older travel sketchbook. I lived in Edinburgh a year, and this sketch was done on my street as the cherry blossoms exploded into Spring. This sketchbook marks the time I first started to take sketching seriously, having fresh material for my eyes, and started a habit that has become all-consuming.

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Bauhaus und die Neue Typographie

Of the distinction between craft and art, the poet James Merrill once said, ‘If this line does exist, the poet himself shouldn’t draw it; he should focus only on making the poem happen.’*

The Bauhaus school embraced this amalgamation of the creative role of the artist and the skilled production of the craftsman. Its founder, Walter Gropius, proclaimed: <<Die Schule soll allmälich in der Werkstatt aufgehen. Kunstler und Handwerker gemeinsam in Lehre und Produktion.>> (The school will gradually turn into a workshop. Artist and craftsman together in apprenticeship and production.’)

From this philosophy—and the Bauhaus can most accurately be considered a philosophy above a cohesive style, as Sandusky** commented in 1938—emerged a typography that, like its architectural and metalwork siblings, pursued originality through function. Function was considered the Zeitgeist, the ‘spirit of the age;’ a no-nonsense ideal sharply diverging from the frivolity of the worship of beauty that had consumed past generations.

Function in typography, for the Bauhaus, addressed the crucial concern of the day: communication. While text always communicated, proponents of the Bauhaus complained of a veritable inundation of books, pamphlets, posters and ads, a visual menagerie of words vying for one’s attention. Modern life simply called for so much reading that the least we could do was make it easier on ourselves. Looking back from our modern perch, we could make the same demand twenty times over as we cringe over poorly typeset workplace documents or black-on-yellow job advertisements.

Herbert Bayer*** called for ‘an alphabet that corresponds to the demands of an age of science.’ A science of communication was thus proposed: amidst the relentless babble of printed word, the Bauhaus preached clarity over beauty. Typography ought to grasp the guts of text and allow its meaning to pour logically across the page, rather than impose conventions on it or conceal it under ornamentation. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy called this ‘the inner law of expression and the optical effect.’

In 1923 various Bauhaus teachers and sympathisers (Jan Tschichold, despite his notoriety, fell into the latter camp) penned manifestos on Die Neue Typographie (The New Typography), at the same time as the school revised its workshop-based ideal. The craftsman was losing ground to the machine, which could outperform him in both precision and efficiency. Richard Sennett provides an apt summary of the rise of the machine in The Craftsman, and questions why ‘skilled operatives live with and through machines but rarely create them in modern industry,’ thus securing their own demise. The Bauhaus seems to have grasped the true threat of the machine, but, rather than shying from it and wishing it away, sought to harness the power of it and embrace all that the modern age brought. In 1923, with a bold new program, the Bauhaus school forged on with its new motto: ‘Art and technology—a new unity.’ This new emphasis on industry acknowledged that mass-production was to be accepted as part of the modern world, and that the craftsman must design his works accordingly.

Tschichold**** wrote of technology as ‘only a kind of second nature,’ not to be feared but, just like the primary nature, to guide the artist and craftsman: ‘Both nature and technology teach us that “form” is not independent, but grows out of function (purpose), out of the materials we use (organic or technical) and how they are used.’

Applied to typography, which was driven by always advancing technical materials, this meant a number of things. The spirit of the age being the advancement of function, and the function of typography being communication, clarity emerged as the driving force of Bauhaus typography. All elements derived from this root: contrast, which was to be marked but logical; organic form, rather than predetermined conventional form; logical arrangements; asymmetry, which emerged from the rhythm of the text and did not shy from white space; lack of ornament—including contrast between thick and thin stroke—thus shedding ‘an attitude of childish naïveté.’

Tschichold’s list goes on, and we may see in it a precursor to more recent ideas that have permeated information graphics, such as those pushed by Stephen Few in Information Dashboard Design. Few’s central claim is that a designer communicates subtly by enhancing data, but ought only use this power in meaningful ways. Multi-coloured bar graphs draw attention to distinctions that do not exist, while the sparing use of colour, such as one red word among many black, can indicate a figure is amiss without needing to state this in words. Few, like Tschichold, calls for only meaningful use of colour and contrast, rather than misleading decorative uses which lead the viewer to construct meaning where there is none.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proponents of the New Typography were somewhat stifled in their initial font choices, since printers only stocked certain type families—a small hiccup that the march of progress would correct. Nevertheless, the New Typography embraced Grotesk (sans serif) fonts as ‘the only one[s] in spiritual accordance with our time,’ conceding Paul Renner’s Futura a notable step towards the ideal. Tschichold firmly believed that the ideal font could not be generated by one person, but must be a collaborative effort, and would inevitably rely on an engineer—perhaps for structural integrity?

Paul Renner's 'Futura'

In 1925, Bayer found himself tasked with devising a typeface for all Bauhaus manifestos, commissioned by Gropius himself. Bayer’s response, Universal, was a simplified, non-case-specific, geometric typeface, all circles and arches, flowing like neon lettering waiting to be melded into one circuit. Joseph Albers devised Kombinationschrift (‘combination-lettering’) during his time at the Bauhaus, which relied on ten simple geometric shapes that he rearranged to construct each letter. The result is something like lettering one would expect to see stencilled on the side of an army tank. While clean and built of simple, almost mechanical elements, such lettering must surely tire one’s eyes as much as a dense slab of Textura—hardly living up to the Bauhaus’ original catch cry of clarity. Perhaps Technik and mass-production had truly taken over from function.

Herbert Bayer's 'Universal'

Despite the dogmatic list compiled by Tschichold (which he later tossed aside, fearing its religious and fascist overtones), the spirit of the Bauhaus’s New Typography narrows down to a simple concentration on essentials in communicating visually. The philosophy all the while acknowledges that this, too, is an historical aim: ‘All lettering…is first and foremost an expression of its own time, just as every man is a symbol of his time.’ Many typefaces have been lauded for their clarity, from sans serif to serif to blackletter—and each has probably proved of optimal readability to its own age. The Bauhaus did not claim that the New Typography was essentially superior to all other typography—simply that it responded in a very precise way to the challenges of its time.

This was particularly pertinent in a world beginning to truly globalise, wedged between two world wars that inextricably drew nations together. Not only was the world inundated with the written word (a mere glimpse of what was to come), but it was becoming more interconnected. Typefaces that emphasised a particular culture or were ‘custom built’ for any given language contradicted the dawning cosmopolitan age. Tschichold considered such national typefaces to undermine the function of text in this new, borderless setting.

While the New Typography was fresh, inclusive and customised according to the logic of a text, perhaps the Bauhaus overlooked some important functions of typography in seeking such unity across media and borders. While the New Typography would stand out amidst the old, a world full of rigidly-defined text would create some optimised faux-lifestyle that did not permit tact in funeral notices or merriment at holidays. Tschichold made the sweeping claim that ‘The best typefaces are those which can be used for all purposes, and the bad ones are those which can only be used for visiting-cards or hymn books.’ Perhaps what he really wanted to say was that aristocratic society and religion were dead, rather than that every text be rendered alike.

* Sennett, Richard. 2009. The Craftsman. Penguin: London.
** Sandusky, L. [1938] 2001. ‘The Bauhaus Tradition and the New Typography,’ in Texts on type: Critical writings on typography. Allworth.
*** Bayer, Herbert. 2001. ‘On Typography,’ in Texts on type: Critical writings on typography. Allworth.
**** Tschichold, Jan. [1923] 2001. ‘The Principles of the New Typography,’ in Texts on type: Critical writings on typography. Allworth.

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Crafternoons

And now for some gratuitous crafting!

Here is a summery top-in-progress, from half an 80s dress pattern and over-the-top bird-and-flower-covered cotton:

Sketchbook drawings–the neighbours cut down the big tree between our veranda and their house, so I stared into their windows for a long time. They cut it down by organising some tree-loppers with a very large mulching truck that parked itself in our driveway at 7.20am. I have several sketches of the never-before-seen neighbours’ house:

My sister came to stay. I took her to the Lifeline Bookfest, and she was happy. My brother stays permanently. We got real internetz today:

Although I could never write to her for fear of her thinking I’m a douche bag, I have infinite respect for Kate Davies. Kate Davies made me realise that one can be a woman and participate in craft and be educated and have intellectual discussions about craft. It’s why I’m reading Richard Sennett’s book, The Craftsman, and though I’ll probably never study textiles history, I may yet undertake a PhD on aesthetics and the role of the craftsman and value.

I am making Kate Davies’ O w l s. I am making them in Rowan British Sheep Breeds in Dark Grey Welsh. I did consider other wools, but had an unfortunate encounter with my local wool shop, who only stock rainbow colours and are otherwise very rude.

I like to think that I might have met Kate Davies, when I lived in Edinburgh a couple of years ago. I certainly met Ysolda when I used to haunt K1 Yarns on Victoria Street longingly, and she helped me pick out some pink alpaca for my spring jumper. We might have bumped shoulders looking at all that amazing wool.

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Career progression

‘Higher’ level jobs all seem to involve more planning, strategy and coordination than actual performance of a job. One might be a builder, but as the boss, one has to get plans approved by the council, visit the tile shop to order in the correct tiles, calculate all the bricks needed to construct the house, and present quotes to potential clients. The ‘higher’ up a builder is, the less cementing bricks to other bricks and nailing wood to more wood he or she does—those ‘lower’ jobs can be left to day labourers and contractors.

But what if you really just like building? At some point, we each have to make a choice about what it is that we enjoy and value, and construct our own hierarchies. Of course there will always be chains of command, with a boss-figure directing subordinates, with one person overseeing other people’s work because that person has the broader picture. But we need to separate that functional structure from our own conception of the value of what we do.

‘The modern era is often described as a skills economy,’ writes Richard Sennett* (p. 37), ‘but what exactly is a skill?’ It is assumed that the more skilled one is, the more advanced in one’s career one ought to be, with more responsibilities and more strategic influence. But skills, Sennett argues, are more about problem solving through repetition. One acquires them through a learning process of repeating a task until something ‘clicks’ and then repeating it some more until one finds better ways of doing it. ‘Skill opens up in this way only because the rhythm of solving and opening up occurs again and again’ (p. 38).

If one is at a point in one’s career that enables one to simply focus on the job rather than fighting with peripherals, one is far better positioned to develop these skills. What’s more, one is more likely to be enjoying it, since one signed up to be a builder / illustrator / physicist, and thus is likely inclined to prefer building / illustrating / theorising about physics more than chasing clients or applying for grants. Actually completing the tasks presents challenges that give a sense of achievement once overcome, once problems are solved. And the longer one lingers at this ‘lower’ level, the more refined one’s skills will become.

It is possible that the world isn’t entirely composed of people who like to use their hands when solving problems. Perhaps some people really do get a kick out of hands-free strategising, at a safe distance from the dirt. If your skill is really and truly administration, well, good for you. But I would never esteem you as being far above labourers, researchers and painters simply for your overarching role in an organisation. The little people have these skills too—only they know where the real satisfaction in work lies, and it’s not at the top.

* Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. Penguin Books: London.

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